A Studio Reflection

Doug Purnell - Echoes (59cm x 59 cm acrylic on paper).jpg
Doug Purnell, ‘Echoes’ (59cm x 59cm. Acrylic on paper)

I have been trying to articulate how for me as a pastoral theologian the primary text is lived experience. I hold that in conversation with received tradition (which I am asking a lot of questions about), through an act of the imagination, the work of artists, and seeking to discern the voice of God breaking into our world in fresh ways. That is what I feel called to as artist, so I am not trying to represent surfaces, but, with integrity, to create works that are open to the mystery of what is beyond our immediate grasp.

I want to share with you an experience of working alongside my two granddaughters in my art studio. Before they arrived, I cleaned up the mess and made a space for them to work. On the beach last week, I had found a 3–4” long and perfectly formed shell. So I put it out for them, gave them a big piece of board (about 70 x 70 cms) and a pencil, and asked them to draw a big picture of the shell. Pollyanna is 10 and Darby 7. They made their drawings and I put out some paint. I put out a couple of buckets filled with brushes of all sizes and shapes, including dish mops and scrapers. Pollyanna began with a big 7 centimeter brush, painting the background in multiple colours, and Darby began painting the shell. Intriguingly, the shells remained part of their composition, but were not the focus of their action. They began to play with the paint and the brushes and the mark making, and they both came up with interesting paintings. The shells were there, as part of the whole, but were not the main focus.

They wanted to do more paintings. Darby, who I always think has the mind spirit of the artist, found a tennis ball in one of the nearby boxes and asked if she could put paint on it. Then she wanted a large box so that she could put the paper in the box and roll the tennis ball covered in paint around in the box, ‘to see what happened’. She quickly changed to bouncing the paint-soaked tennis ball on the paper lying in the box, and forming a quality pattern in the bouncing of the ball. Pollyanna had her go, again having painted the background first. Nice, splurty, round marks. Then Pollyanna found a rubber wheel with corrugations in the rubber. I suggested making prints on the paper with it, and they were off on another stream of creating. I became intrigued with how they had begun with a specific task – to draw the shell – and had, in a short time, moved into a playful extension that was free, expressive, energetic, and poetic.

Later in the day, I was watching a documentary from 1973 on Painters Painting. Barnett Newman was ruminating on whether painting focuses on the objects painted as the subject of the painting, and whether the subject of a painting could be more than the objects within it. He talked about Cezanne’s apples. Are they the subject of the painting, or simply objects within the painting? He saw them as being like cannon balls, and the painting was much more than the objects depicted within it. What my granddaughters did yesterday was to begin their paintings with an object – the shell. And quickly their processes moved from the shell as the object and subject of the painting to the painting as a process that was more than depicting the shell. That transition – from an object being depicted, to a painting being created – was a very significant step that seems to reflect my own processes as an artist. I sit in the landscape for solid periods. I look and draw and scribble and play and reflect on the object of the landscape. And then I come back to my studio and I play, and I hope that by engaging the process I might make works that go beyond the object of land or face or whatever. It was intriguing to observe and reflect on their processes.


Doug Purnell is a pastoral theologian who in his retirement is focusing on a commitment to a full-time studio practice of painting that explores the nature of abstraction and mark making. He was for 17 years the director of the Blake Prize for Religious Art. He lives and paints on Gadigal land.

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